Thursday 25 August 2016

Chameleon: "Gary Numan: Android in La-La Land"

As befits its subject, everything about Steve Read and Rob Alexander's documentary Gary Numan: Android in La-La Land is slightly off. Numan himself freely admits to camera he wasn't the first serious young man to turn his hand to alienated synth pop, nor the best - Kraftwerk might well lay claim to both of those titles - nor, really, the sexiest; fame, he confesses, left him even more baffled and panicked than he already was, obliging him to retreat to a bedsit where an inflatable dinghy served as the sofa and he could subsist chiefly on a diet of oven chips. Numan's current domestic life, as presented here, appears scarcely less off-the-wall. If there's one thing Smash Hits' plethora of Numan Facts taught us - other than the singer's standing alongside Bruce Dickinson among the licensed pilots of rock - it's that our Gary married superfan Gemma, who told her school careers advisor she didn't need a job, because she was going to marry Gary Numan. Reader, she did, and - rather wonderfully - the pair are still together, despite her tendency to mock him as a scaredy-cat for ducking the Paranormal Activity series of films. A further level of insider commentary comes care of the pair's adorable young daughters, who tease daddy for dying his hair Goth-black. Very quickly, you sense this is not going to be another of those musical vanity projects.

From a career perspective, the Numan who Read and Alexander joined in late 2012 is entering into a transitional phase: with the fresh ideas he nudged into the charts 35 years ago having long since been absorbed into the mainstream (hey there, Two-Thirds-Good Sugababes!), he's faced with a stark choice: go round and round on the emergent 1980s nostalgia circuit, or - building on the kudos being dispatched his way by such electronica trailblazers as Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails - to strike out into fresh new territory. The latter would be a challenge for most musicians approaching their mid-fifties, doubly so for one who admits to being somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and clearly relishes the comforts of home. It is, nevertheless, a challenge Numan and family embrace, in relocating from leafy Virginia Water, Surrey - the clan's base for the past few decades - to sun-blanched California. One wonders whether this will become a familiar sight in post-Brexit documentary cinema: creatives packing up and moving elsewhere.

What we get here, then, is a Numan overview: not technically a retrospective - an approach that might well have been overruled by the film's forward-looking subject - but a snapshot of the artist as a newly middle-aged man. Read and Alexander's wry approach to this portrait means some of what follows can't help but remind viewers of TV's The Osbournes: here is Gemma on her hands and knees, bleaching the cat piss off the curtains in her mansion, here is Gary making a fumbling attempt to solder the motherboard of a malfunctioning hard drive. The pair's bantering affection - "Have you got an A-to-Z on how to put me down?" - is very Ozzy and Sharon, certainly, yet it's obvious that the grounded Gemma is the rock that allows her husband to attempt this giant leap; while he's away operating on another musical planet eight-to-ten hours a day, she can rightly lay claim to being the singer's terra firma. Numan himself is disarmingly candid: there's a sensitivity and a directness about him that makes him a compelling interview subject, particularly when discussing his family's financial fluctuations, and his own struggles with antidepressants. 

This willingness to lay bare his own workings allows Android to better address the question of what makes a musician tick - especially one for whom every step of the recording process exists as a potential source of anxiety. The detailed chapter on how Numan puts a track together chimes very favourably with those resonant in-studio scenes in the recent Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy in demonstrating to those clothears among us how even the strangest and most otherworldly of tunes needs to be assembled, one note at a time, by some presiding creative intelligence, the way you or I might fix a sandwich for lunch. With the emphasis placed firmly on Numan's 2013 comeback album "Splinter", Read and Alexander can make an editorial point of the fact we barely hear a thing of the one-two ("Are 'Friends' Electric?" and "Cars") which made the singer a star: the implication is that there's more to Numan than his past, and that he's a more interesting and innovative figure than those hits - standards as they've become - might imply. If the documentarists joined Numan at a point of transition, they leave him in a far happier, creatively fruitful place - and what's in between does much to establish a safe space for its subject in the contemporary repertoire.

Gary Numan: Android in La-La Land opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.    

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